Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Gabor Maté: Toxic Culture

Gabor Maté knows how to attract a crowd. Today the "world-renowned physician and writer" gave a Keynote Presentation at the University of Alberta that the police had to shut down. Not for anything he said or did, but because too many people swarmed into the Telus Centre to hear him. Someone complained and forty-five minutes into his presentation the organizers had to arrange another room for the overflow. Maté looked stunned at first but quickly adapted. He's used to adjusting to sudden shifts in his environment. Much of his research depends on identifying the influence of surroundings on our physical and mental health.

The crux of his argument was a refutation of conventional scientific wisdom. For too long the medical community in the west has treated mental health issues as separate from physical ones, which are then further isolated from wider environmental or social concerns. All the evidence points to the combined influence of these factors on the well-being of an individual's total health. To isolate one area from another is essentially an ideological position that ends up exacerbating illnesses of all kinds, leading to what Maté calls our "toxic culture."

According to Maté, humans need attachment and authenticity. We're wired to be attached to others and to express ourselves authentically without fear. That gut feeling you ignored? That's what Maté calls "a denial of authenticity." He goes on to identify sociologist Erich Fromm's "myth of normalcy" as a source of society's problems. Rather than attachment and authenticity, society values appearance, behaviour, and life circumstance as measures of success.    

One of the ways to remedy this malpractice is to accept the science and not the ideology, which wrongly attributes only biological or genetic sources for illnesses. The main cause, according to Maté, is our environment. When we cease dividing mind from body, or the individual from society, the toxins in our collective system will wither and die. Only then will Karl Marx's so-called "four alienations" - from nature, others, work, and from ourselves - be finally resolved.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Idle No More: Emancipatory Politics

"What is required is a theatre without spectators..." ~ Jacques Rancière
Idle No More has inspired a movement that's not only responsible for some cool art by Dwayne Bird, it has also been challenging traditional hierarchies everywhere, within and without native communities. As Jacques Rancière would say, it's a form of dissensus, or a dissent from inequality, and an insensibility. By not adhering to conventional methods of protest, Idle No More has been reconfiguring the sensory apparatus that permits participation in legitimate political struggle. The movement is located beyond the pale of acceptability and thus appears as irrational and insensible in the best way possible.

Employing an aesthetic that recalls Viktor Shklovsky's notion of "defamiliarization", Idle No More has forced a new way of seeing by embodying the unfamiliar as a way of enhancing perception of the familiar. At its core, this is essentially revolutionary and absolutely emancipatory. It traverses what Rancière calls the partage, or partition, that separates the legitimate from the illegitimate, and generates genuine hope for substantial and lasting change.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Phil Ochs: The Chords Of Fame

“If there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara” ~ Phil Ochs
One of the great unheeded lessons Phil Ochs left behind was to avoid mistaking celebrity fame for political substance. This drove him crazy as he yearned to be as famous as Elvis or Dylan.

"Phil Ochs was the political songwriter Bob Dylan should've been" ~ Billy Bragg
Ochs seemed oblivious to the fact that celebrities are ultimately commodities celebrated by fans who place consumerism above other attachments, especially revolution. Most fans have already bought into the system and have relinquished any commitment to fundamentally changing the status quo.

"God help the troubadour who tries to be a star"
By the time a "Presley-Guevara" hybrid emerges, the fan's priority becomes obtaining a piece of the product, not engaging in any form of social change. In the end, maybe this is what killed Phil Ochs - a fan of both Elvis and John Wayne - the realization that he had been playing the chords of fame, mistaking celebrities for revolutionaries.
"So play the chords of love, my friend
Play the chords of pain
But if you want to keep your song
Don't, don't, don't 
Don't play the chords of fame"

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Canada's Mosaic: Shifting Patterns

Over the past few years a movement has emerged to reconfigure Canada's relationship to multiculturalism. It's been a subtle but determined effort to alter minority access to justice. This past June, Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act was repealed by Harper's Conservative government in response to what proponents called strengthening freedom of expression. As Maclean's wrote:
"The effect of killing Section 13 will be debated for years among anti-racist groups and civil libertarians. But it is undoubtedly a turning point. Since 1999, Canadians who felt aggrieved by material transmitted online have been encouraged to seek redress under federal human rights law, which targeted material 'likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt' based on grounds of discrimination like race, religion or sexual orientation. Storseth’s bill repeals the provision outright, leaving the Criminal Code as the primary bulwark against the dissemination of hate propaganda by electronic means."
Section 13 read:
13. (1) It is a discriminatory practice for a person or a group of persons acting in concert to communicate telephonically or to cause to be so communicated, repeatedly, in whole or in part by means of the facilities of a telecommunication undertaking within the legislative authority of Parliament, any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.

(2) For greater certainty, subsection (1) applies in respect of a matter that is communicated by means of a computer or a group of interconnected or related computers, including the Internet, or any similar means of communication, but does not apply in respect of a matter that is communicated in whole or in part by means of the facilities of a broadcasting undertaking.

The Criminal Code doesn't allow minority voices equal access to the instruments of justice that the Canadian Human Rights Act was designed to ensure. It's no surprise that the Canadian Bar Association, representing 37,000 jurists, lawyers, notaries, law teachers and students across Canada, was opposed to repealing Section 13. As CBA spokesperson Shelina Ali wrote:
"The CBA notes that the evidentiary standard under the Criminal Code is high; the offence must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. By contrast, the Human Rights Act provides a lower standard of proof, the civil standard based on a balance of probabilities. The lower standard offers protection to individuals and groups who are the target of hate speech that may be very damaging, but does not meet the criminal law standard. According to the CBA, Section 13(1) 'protects minorities from psychological harm caused by the dissemination of racial views which inevitably result in prejudice, discrimination and the potential of physical violence.'

The CBA reiterates the Supreme Court's position that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and limits to this right can be warranted."
This last point is crucial: in Canada, unlike in the U.S. where the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on freedom of speech, Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms actually places "reasonable limits" on freedom of expression. Canada has learned through its own history the value of protecting human rights to ensure that diversity flourishes, but Harper's regime is devoted to clawing back these hard-won victories. Section 13 may have needed to be reformed, but it was a national crime to kill it.   

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Peter Tosh: The Toughest

One of Peter Tosh's earliest singles was "I'm The Toughest" and he did his best to live up to that reputation for the duration of his 42 years...even on a unicycle...

For much of his career he played guitar and sang alongside Bob Marley and Bunny Livingston in the legendary Wailers until they split up after releasing the 1973 classic, Burnin'. Before they parted ways, Marley and Tosh collaborated on the seminal, "Get Up, Stand Up."

The two shared a Lennon/McCartney-type relationship, with Tosh playing the angry John to Marley's sweeter Paul. When Marley sang of "One Love" Tosh eventually countered with "No Peace" from his amazing solo album, Equal Rights.

So it blew my mind recently when I found myself at the gates of the Tosh Memorial Garden in Belmont, Westmoreland on Jamaica's south coast.  

A giant Rasta named Pablo greeted me with a fat spliff and led me to Tosh's tomb.

Tosh was murdered at his Kingston home on September 11, 1987, shot in the head by a "maga dog," or an ungrateful thug from Trench Town who he had once offered a helping hand.

Pablo then pointed to the house further up the hill and said I could go meet "the mother," 96-year-old Alvira Coke.

All this happened unexpectedly, a serendipitous event on the road between Montego Bay and Treasure Beach.
"Live for yourself, you will live in vain
Live for others, you will live again...
Pass it on"

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Django Unchained: Tables Turned

“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
I've just returned from a trip to Jamaica, a country that celebrates slave revolts through such "national heroes" as Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle. When I saw Quentin Tarantino's new flick Django Unchained in Ocho Rios, just down the road from where Christopher Columbus landed and Marcus Garvey was born, the predominantly black audience was vocal in its support of Jamie Foxx's bloody vengeance during the film's final climax. Jamaica is a country that harbours no illusions when it comes to the blunt violence necessitated by the "shitstem" of slavery. It's also a reality that Tarantino has confronted throughout his career.

"Slave driver the table is turned
Catch a fire, you're gonna get burned" ~ The Wailers
Tarantino makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. He's a persistent nag that won't let anyone off the hook for past injustices, a constant reminder of the debt that continues to plague the culture. That he pulls it off with panache and biting humour is all the more reason to celebrate his work. Enter Django Unchained.

Along with including Jim Croce beside Rick Ross on the soundtrack, the singular achievement of Django Unchained is its recasting of slavery to allow its horror to be realized in a contemporary vernacular that speaks to the present. It's no surprise that most Americans find Spielberg's tidy reminiscences in Lincoln more palatable, but it's Tarantino's rude intrusions that they really need.

The film succeeds in mixing pop humour and Shakespearean drama with schmaltzy clichés like the spaghetti western to create a deliciously novel, riveting tale. Leo DiCaprio embodies a grotesque combination of Macbeth and Daffy Duck as he relishes the ghoulish task of smashing a skull with a hammer, while Samuel Jackson's fevered portrait of the "house boy" is enough to cheer for his untimely demise.

The film resonates with righteous justice and vengeance. Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Django has a tense earnestness that provides the still center for the rest of the action to spiral around. DiCaprio, as plantation owner Calvin Candie, is the warped loon swinging from the chandelier, while bounty hunter Christoph Waltz, the foreign eye offering the Old vs. New World contrast, is removed, literally un-American and ironically civil. In the end, the barbarity of the "New World" bleeds through and stains all, participants and witnesses alike.